Post Academic

Forum on publishing: The time-lag problem

Posted in Process Stories,Publish and Perish by Arnold Pan on March 11, 2010
Tags: , ,

We’d like to open up our virtual floor here at Post Academic for a discussion on publishing, a topic that I know for a fact people across academic disciplines, tenuously hanging on to academia, and outside of academia are interested in.  Caroline and I have been batting around some ideas on all the areas of publishing we’d like to cover on Post Academic, including everything from…

* The frustrations and rewards of writing academic publications

* What publications mean in different fields and disciplines

* How to pitch a book, whether it’s a scholarly monograph, a novel, whatever

* Freelancing (which I’ve started to address)

* The process from an editor’s perspective

We’re hoping that you, our readers, will jump in not only with suggestions on publishing topics you’d like us to explore, but also by chiming in about your experiences with publishing, whether you want to offer helpful how-to’s or find someone to commiserate with over that essay in “revise and resubmit limbo.”  We completely appreciate that many of the academics who might want to participate need to do so with great discretion, so feel free to respond anonymously or offer suggestions to us via email at our “Contact Us” account.

I’ll kick this forum off by touching on some of the difficulties I’ve had trying to publish my research.  Of course, there are plenty of issues to talk about, but the one I want to focus on here is the issue of the time lag between submission, acceptance, and actual publication, from the perspective of a writer.

The Problem:  It can take at least a year or more like two (right?) before something we submit actually arrives in print.  While it’s certainly a great and satisfying accomplishment to see an essay you’ve only looked at in a MS-Word file finally typeset, there’s also a kind of reaction that the work hardly represents where your mind is at in the present.  That’s not to mention that you’re probably already feeling alienated from your work after all the edits you’ve made on your own in preparing the essay, revisions you’ve made in response to potentially multiple sets of readers who all want different things (but mainly that you write about what they write about), and proofreadings you’ve done when/if the essay is accepted.

Professionally, there’s also the worry that, in the long time it takes from submission to acceptance to publication, some other essay that’s been in the pipeline for a few years itself will come out in the interim and make your essay totally obsolete.  I speak from experience here: in preparing an essay excerpted from a dissertation chapter written 4 years ago for a job application, I came across the title of an essay that raised the same theoretical questions and used the same specialized terminology I had.  What added insult to embarrassment here was that my unpublished, now-never-to-be-published (NNTBP, for short) piece had spent more than a year in a weird holding pattern.  Here’s the timeline:

April 2008: Abstract for NNTBP essay is submitted for initial review for special issue of a solid but not super-exclusive journal.

October 2008: NNTBP manuscript is prepared and submitted for review.

Late October 2008: NNTBP manuscript is rejected for special issue, but very kind (seriously) editor offers to consider it for an edited collection/book project on a related topic.  Actually, this was a pretty fast turnaround by the editor, who was always very nice and respectful to me.

November 2008: After ignoring rejection email, I am contacted by the editor, who asks if I want my essay considered for edited collection.  I agree to the offer.

Februrary 2009: There is a second life for the NNTBP essay, now that abstract is resubmitted for second project.

March 2009: The edited collection, based on abstracts, is submitted to a publisher.

June 2009: Publisher accepts edited collection, but some essays will not be included.  You guessed it, the axe fell on NNTBP essay.  But wait!  The editor gives it a third life, offering to have it re-evaluated for the special issue that I originally submitted the NNTBP essay for.

October 2009: The third time is not the charm for the NNTBP essay, as editorial board of solid but not super-exclusive journal rejects the piece–with readers’ comments in case I want to resubmit again for general issue of said journal.

November 2009: I discover another article (that has not been uploaded to JSTOR or Project Muse) which has a title that seems to cover similar ground to the NNTBP essay as I prepare writing sample for secondary job application request.

December 2009: I did not get the job, though it probably had little to do with the essay.

Okay, so let’s tally up the results: The process took a year-and-a-half and also left me further behind than I was where I started, since my essay got nowhere and another essay on at least superficially the same topic made it into print in the meantime.  That’s not to say that I was obsessing over this essay all the time or that it would’ve been published somewhere else; actually, maybe it wouldn’t have even gotten as far as it did–which is not very–without the support of the editor, who did seem to genuinely like the NNTBP essay and backed it as much as s/he could.  And I should also give some props to all the editorial assistants that I’ve worked with, many of whom are grad students and post-Ph.D.’s who do the underappreciated work, are anything but part of the problem and could be part of the solution, actually.

I actually think I have an idea for a solution to this problem, far-fetched and outlandish as that may seem, but I’ll save that for the next very long post on publishing.  Hint: it has to do a little bit with the Internet.  In the meantime, do you want to share you own  publishing stories–anonymously if need be–in the comments section below?

8 Responses to 'Forum on publishing: The time-lag problem'

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  1. Len said,

    Academics like to pretend that peer review matters, but a great deal seems to consist of solicited work. Otherwise I can’t imagine how the same marquee lineup turns up in every issue of Critical Inquiry or American Literary History.

    A colleague of mine was sick of the peer review process and started his own journal a few years ago. He actually has a lot of interesting reflections on peer review, for example in volume 6.2: I think it might be time to do the same for literary studies?

    • Arnold Pan said,

      Maybe we can interview your friend about these issues. Starting a journal sounds like a really interesting idea, and it seems like he has put together a strong advisory board.

      • Len said,

        That’s a good idea — I’ll ask him!

      • Arnold Pan said,

        Thanks, Len! I’m going to follow up on the publishing topic this week, mostly on the ways academic publishing could be more efficient. I remember you mentioned to me some online-only/online-focused journals that had figured out how to turn things over much faster than the typical in-print journal.

  2. Arnold Pan said,

    I was thinking the same thing about peer review and blind submission. I wonder if they could do a “Pepsi Challenge”-style (remember those from the 80s?) blind taste-test, comparing a papers from well-known scholars and not-so-well-known scholars and see if the editors could tell the difference just from language and strength of argument. This isn’t to slag on senior scholars, but I think young scholars who really *need* the publication probably have more motivation to be meticulous.

    I’m also wondering about the status of online-only journals. I was talking to someone about this, and, of course, there is still a book fetish (naturally enough!) in the humanities. Whatever is online tends to be digital facsimiles of hard copies, right? But how would publishing change if there was no need to have the hard copy as the primary medium? I’m thinking it would really open up publishing to offer more opportunities and turn around scholarship faster. There really is at least a year or more of lag between research and publication, I’m guessing?

    • Eric said,

      In philosophy there’s one well-known online journal, Philosopher’s Imprint:

      Access is free, and UMichigan pays the overhead costs. As far as I know the journal was started as something like proof of concept to fight some of the problems you’ve been discussing. I’m not sure how well it’s working out.

      • Arnold Pan said,

        Thanks for the tip, Eric. I’ll check it out. I’ve been told there are some visual studies journals which take advantage of the multimedia possibilities of publishing online.

    I wrote a little on this topic, with some ideas on how to fix it. Maybe paid reviewers, where it’s their job to review (removes bias of ‘peers’, never been quite sure why ‘peer’ review is the gold standard when it has such built in bias).

    I have a timeline of an ongoing maybe never to be published paper, although it will probably someday get published. However, it may get published too late for MY career 🙂

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